I was asked in a recent radio interview what drives young men, like Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the man suspected of beheading James Foley, to become radicalised and go overseas to places like Syria and Iraq to fight and use extreme violence. There’s no easy explanation which could summarise and rationalise why people like Bary become involved in terrorist activity and commit such abhorrent acts of violence. The truth is far from simple, and the fact is there’s no single pathway to radicalisation. Each individual will have different motivations and influences for following such a path. Any ‘expert’ who tells you otherwise is being dishonest.
Since 9/11 there has been a great deal of research conducted on trying to understand radicalisation, with various schools of thought emerging as to the key drivers for individuals to become radicalised to the point of utilising violence. That research concludes that there are a range of global, sociological and political drivers which will influence someone to become involved in those activities, all of which matter just as much as ideological and psychological drivers.
Most individuals have had some vulnerability in their lives that made them receptive to extremist ideology, and for a majority, radicalisation takes a long period of time. Nobody becomes a terrorist overnight. Some of the key vulnerabilities identified by researchers that make individuals more open to extremist ideology have included the experience of migration to a country where they face marginalisation and racism; a serious criminal past; religious misunderstanding and naivety; failure to find anything but low-level employment despite holding degrees; and travelling abroad and having direct contact with extremist networks.
It’d be a mistake to assume that everyone who has had some kind of difficult experience in their lives will go on to become terrorists; those who do, had contact with an individual or group of existing extremists, who prey on that vulnerability and exploit it.
That’s not to remove blame from the individual who becomes involved in terrorist activity. Individuals make conscious choices and have to face the consequences. But a common feature in most cases of radicalisation is the presence of an influential individual, or group—a radicalisation ‘broker’ if you will—who assists and guides the individual towards a certain path. Involvement with that group can provide a purpose and a sense of belonging to something ‘bigger than themselves’.
In recent times we’ve seen a move towards increasing levels of online activity by extremist groups and their target audience as a mechanism for recruitment and communications. No more powerful example exists than the current media campaign by the Islamic State (IS).
During the early to mid-2000s the use of the Internet for communications was an important element in the terrorist tool kit for planning operations and organising meetings between those involved in a network. Increasingly, it became a conduit for sermons and propaganda. YouTube videos of jihadists in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan were easily available. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were perceived as long-term leaders for the manner in which they disseminated their material to a global online audience through their magazine, Inspire. Their charismatic figurehead, Anwar al-Awlaki, was famed for his English-language YouTube sermons, blog and Facebook page which influenced various people to carry out acts of terrorism.
We’ve reached a third stage in the evolution of modern jihadist propaganda, whereby Islamic State (IS) members who’ve grown up with technology, are adept at utilising the entire range of disseminating tools at their disposal. JustPaste is used to publish summaries of battles that have taken place, SoundCloud to release audio reports of activities, WhatsApp and Kik Messenger to communicate and send images and videos, and Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to share images, propaganda and messages from the frontlines. They even have Q&A sessions about joining the group on Ask.FM. Their messages are tailored to their audience, changing depending on whether they’re intended for a local audience, or would-be Western recruits. There’s a photo shared by pro-IS Twitter users which shows three bullets, each with a different top: ‘A bullet. A pen. A thumb drive…There is a different form of jihad’.
One thing is for sure—their rapid battlefield success, wealth, and claims of a caliphate are an intoxicating blend for those considering joining.
Governments face considerable difficulties in countering an online narrative which is dispersed so quickly and is so clearly alluring to a small minority of people. Much as we might like to, we can’t entirely eliminate the online messages, as was discovered by the UK crackdown on Twitter in the wake of James Foley’s execution. The crackdown drove those people further into the deep web, as extremists began using Diaspora, a largely untraceable social media platform. Still, should the ideological narrative not be confronted and dealt with carefully, IS and likeminded groups will remain on the front foot in the online environment.